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Blockbuster Johnny Cueto Trade Cements Royals as Heavy AL Favorites

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJuly 26, 2015

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If the Kansas City Royals were the best team in the American League without Johnny Cueto, they're still the best team with him, only better.

That's not exactly a deep thought, but it is a scary one for the other AL hopefuls, who just watched the Central Division leaders and defending league champs add one of the best starting pitchers on the block.

The deal will send a trio of minor league left-handers—Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed—to CincinnatiBut the centerpiece is obviously Cueto, who at age 29 is in the midst of a typically stellar season.

After tossing eight shutout frames against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on Saturday (which should really count for double on the stat sheet), Cueto lowered his ERA to a stingy 2.62.

Saturday was also the day Cueto first heard about the impending swap, which was scrapped and reconfigured because of a medical issue with one of the trade pieces, per Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports.

"They said something to me," Cueto told reporters after the game. "I don't want to use a bad word in this location. But it was really bad the way I found out what happened [before the game]. My head went around the whole way. My thoughts were all over the place."

When he first heard about the trade Saturday, Cueto said his "thoughts were all over the place."
When he first heard about the trade Saturday, Cueto said his "thoughts were all over the place."David Zalubowski/Associated Press/Associated Press
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Now, Cueto can wrap his head around this: He's heading from a struggling club that's buried in fourth place to one that's loaded for a second consecutive World Series run—particularly with him in the fold.

After emerging as baseball's darlings in 2014 and streaking to Game 7 of the Fall Classic, the Royals have utilized the same formulaspeed, defense, timely hitting and a shutdown bullpen—this season to excellent effect.

But there was trouble brewing in the rotation.

The team recently optioned young fireballer and Opening Day starter Yordano Ventura, age 24, to Triple-A Omaha, though he was recalled when left-hander Jason Vargas went down with a torn ulnar collateral ligament that will require Tommy John surgery.

Insert Cueto, and suddenly a potential weakness becomes a strength. 

So the deal is great news for Kansas City, which just plugged a leak. It's also good for Cueto, who will enter a winning clubhouse and likely get another crack at October baseball.

In three postseason starts with Cincinnati—one each in 2010, 2012 and 2013—Cueto is 0-2 with a 5.19 ERA and has never tasted action past the division series.

That's a tiny sample size, obviously, and not indicative of how he'd pitch in the playoffs this time around, assuming he earns the opportunity. But as long as we're playing out hypotheticals, here's a pitcher in his prime about to get his best shot at a deep postseason run. That's intriguing to everyone, Royals fan or otherwise.

Yes, this is the part where we mention the elbow stiffness that nagged Cueto early in the season. In May, however, his agent announced there was no structural damage.

And the arm has looked more than healthy of late.

While twirling a shutout July 7 against the Washington Nationals, Cueto appeared to get stronger in the later innings, as ESPN Stats & Info noted:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

As the game went on Tuesday, Johnny Cueto’s fastball got faster http://t.co/Kkj3VAXWtL

There will be more trades before the July 31 non-waiver deadline passes. In fact, the Cueto dealcombined with the Houston Astros' acquisition of Scott Kazmircould well set off an arms race in the AL. 

For now, the Royals have taken a bold step toward becoming the first repeat American League champions since the Texas Rangers in 2010 and 2011. 

They're unambiguously in win-now mode and for good reason, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post noted: "Kansas City sees its window with its main players in their prime—but also approaching free agency. Alex Gordon can walk after this season, and [Lorenzo] Cain, [Eric] Hosmer and [Mike] Moustakas after the 2017 campaign." 

Sherman continued, "Now, all of the starters get pushed down to more fitting roles, and Cueto fits in as the obvious piece a championship contender needed."

The Royals were the best team in the AL before Cueto. With him on the roster, they look even better. The trick now is to prove it between the lines.

All statistics current as of July 26 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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